Letters & Opinion

Parliament is Not a Boardroom

By Stephen Lester Prescott

“A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.” Nelson Mandela

So the Leader of the Opposition wanted to make his contribution to the debate on the Estimates of Revenue & Expenditure last, and unchallenged.

His staging of his so-called ‘UWP Budget Rebuttal’ in Micoud South on April 4, reinforced all the negative stereotypes, which Mr Chastanet brought on himself during his ongoing journey in public life, especially the little over five years he served as prime minister.

The Saint Lucia Labour Party had from early-o’-clock warned against Mr Chastanet’s quest for state power. It took five years for the majority to realise that ‘leadership is not a position or a title, it’s action and example’, to quote an anonymous saying. On July 26, 2021, after considerable damage had been done to our country’s finances, international reputation and social cohesiveness, the people expressed their disappointment with the Chastanet Government.

Viewers sympathetic to the opposition party would agree that the frequent applause at Micoud South gathering was too heavily choreographed for an activity organised for purposes of analysis, inquisition and differentiation of economic and social policy. They applauded when Mr Chastanet claimed that the SLP represents only 26% of the people. That reasoning in a parliamentary democracy defies logic, because the political party that gets the simple majority in our constitutional system of government represents all of the people.

The official result declared by the Electoral Department says the SLP received 50.14% of the votes cast on July 26, 2021, against the UWP’s 42.91%. But to diminish the SLP victory, or to salvage some pride from the electoral disaster to which he led the UWP, Mr Chastanet plays the game of ‘smoke-and-mirrors’ with the election results, by measuring the votes cast for the SLP against the greater voters’ register (over174,000 eligible voters).

Blame it on the mixed degree!

If Mr Chastanet honestly thinks his performance in government was excellent, and his promises in the campaign for reelection were far superior to that of the SLP’s, then why didn’t his Party draw the greater voter turnout?

In a response to budget proposals by the Minister for Finance, the opposition presenter’s task is to justify or criticise how revenue is obtained and on who or what it is supposed to be spent, as well as provide alternatives for the growth and development of the country in the ensuing financial year.

What we got at the lectern in Micoud South were regrets over suspension and review by this administration of projects (and project plans) under the last administration – the very same projects which caused a drain on the country’s finances, or were conceived and managed purely for the purpose of channeling wealth and resources to Party clans and cliques.

After his tenure of more than five years as the head of government, Mr Chastanet is still very deficient in his knowledge, understanding and practices of government. More importantly, (when it suits him) he seems oblivious, or scornful of the symbols and conventions of the parliamentary system that ensures a measure of political stability on which we must strive to build a prosperous and peaceful nation. That is why, for example, the Lower House was denied the constitutionally mandated position of Deputy Speaker for nearly as long as Mr. Chastanet’s term as head of government. He conveniently forgets that he once caused the adjournment of a debate on the Appropriations Bill for 40 days because, according to him, the opposition was tongue-tied and had not yet recovered from its 2016 election defeat.

Continuous reference to being denied his ‘rebuttal’ to the presentation of the Estimates by the Minister for Finance is further evidence of Mr Chastanet’s disregard for the conventions of parliament. He has been told, repeatedly, that it is only the Minister for Finance, who presented the Estimates, who had the right to a ‘rebuttal’ to wrap-up the debate. But Mr. Chastanet continues to insist that he was entitled to an opportunity to speak last, given that the opposition had just two seats in the 17-member House.

Who takes final responsibility, and pays the consequences for a political party’s loss of a comfortable majority of elected members, in this case eleven to two?

By his explanations, Mr. Chastanet is only confirming that he had resorted to a game of dodging the chair, and avoiding an early contribution to the debate on the Estimates. The petty explanations for his absence from the chamber of parliament (grabbing some lunch and working on his notes) suggest that he staged the whole charade to remove the spotlight from the debate to himself. Mr. Chastanet’s lunch break was his personal decision, taken while the debate was still in session. The Office of Parliament takes responsibility for the hospitality and comfort of MPs during parliamentary sittings. Adjournments are taken for sustenance and refreshments, served in the parliament lounge. There is another practical reason besides refreshment. The lounge provides basic communication services (wifi, tv, telephone, etc) that give MPs no great reason, barring emergencies, to leave the precincts of parliament and God forbid, stray from what is supposed to be their main task of the day – attending to the business of the people. Further, there is a caucus room dedicated to the Opposition, which offers wifi, telephone, computer and printer.

An old African proverb asserts that, “Those who are absent are always wrong.” It may seem harsh, but given the appropriate context, the proverb is powerful. In the context of Mr. Chastanet’s absence from the House (for reasons that were not urgent, or pressing), Mr. Chastanet was wrong. Mr. Chastanet, by his admission, was not in his seat, neither was he in the parliament chamber, nor within the precincts of the House of Assembly at the moment in question. According to him, he had left the sitting to ‘grab some lunch’, which he ate at his official office at Hewanorra House, Pointe Seraphine, some distance away.

In an attempt to give weight to his claim of being silenced, Mr Chastanet advances the notion that the government side was so determined to pre-empt his ‘rebuttal’, that the contributions of five pro-government MPs were sacrificed to shut him out. The flip side of this claim is that the MPs to which he refers clearly sent him a message that the House of Assembly is no one’s private property. These government MPs must be applauded for their stance, knowing that there are alternative means of informing their constituents of the budget proposals that would have a direct impact on their lives in the ensuing financial year.

There have been instances in the past when Labour Party MPs were robbed of their right to debate in the House. Once, in the late 1980s, when Julian R. Hunte led the SLP opposition in parliament, UWP government MPs played cat-and-mouse games to prematurely close debates. On one occasion, when the government side succeeded in their nefarious exploits, pro-UWP commentators argued that the government MPs who sacrificed their contributions to keep opposition MPs from making theirs, had been under no obligation to stand and speak because the budget was prepared by their government! Therefore, all government MPs had already participated in the process of preparation of the allocations announced by the then Minister of Finance.

The UWPees must be consistent with their logic.

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